06 September 2013

Egyptian Chess

If you've spent any time browsing chess art, you've likely seen the image below, which is nearly always titled 'Egyptian Chess Players' as a Google image search confirms. I'm no expert in historical Egyptian fashion, but I'm sure the clothing in the painting predates the introduction of chess in Egypt by more than a thousand years or so.

The style mismatch is confirmed by a close look at the playing pieces. Except for the red and white colors, they are all identical. I'm not sure what board game is shown, but it's not chess.

Almatadema Egyptian Chess Players 1865 © Flickr user ErgSap under Creative Commons.

The painter was Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), a Dutch-born British national according to the Wikipedia page, which also uses the 'chess' painting as an illustration.

During the summer of 1864, Tadema met Ernest Gambart, the most influential print publisher and art dealer of the period. Gambart was highly impressed with the work of Tadema, who was then painting Egyptian chess players (1865). The dealer, recognising at once the unusual gifts of the young painter, gave him an order for twenty-four pictures and arranged for three of Tadema's paintings to be shown in London. In 1865, Tadema relocated to Brussels where he was named a knight of the Order of Leopold.

How well known was he?

After his arrival in England, where he was to spend the rest of his life, Alma-Tadema's career was one of continued success. He became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, acknowledged and rewarded.


His artistic legacy almost vanished. As attitudes of the public in general and the artists in particular became more sceptical of the possibilities of human achievement, his paintings were increasingly denounced. He was declared "the worst painter of the 19th century" by John Ruskin, and one critic even remarked that his paintings were "about worthy enough to adorn bourbon boxes." After this brief period of being actively derided, he was consigned to relative obscurity for many years. Only since the 1960s has Alma-Tadema's work been re-evaluated for its importance within the nineteenth century, and more specifically, within the evolution of English art.

The board in the painting is 10x10. A Google image search on 'egyptian board games' failed to return anything that resembled the game shown. What could it be?

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